I know that one of the main challenges that inventors face is protecting their inventions from theft. As an inventor, you know how much you care about ensuring that your original ideas are not stolen. However, if you have attempted to get one, you know that getting a patent is expensive.
Seeing how this discourages inventors, I did a deep dive to potentially uncover ways of patenting an idea for free and how you can go about it. We will also discuss whether these “free” alternatives are really worth it.
My goal in this article is to show you the possible methods for patenting an idea for free, in other words, to avoid legal fees. I would also walk you through the process of filing a patent and comprehensively address any other issue you likely have if you choose to go this route.
How to Patent an Idea for Free
Patenting an idea is the only way to secure exclusive rights to it. Since securing a patent is lengthy and complicated, hiring a patent attorney is the best choice. These professionals do not work for free, and they come at an expensive price. Therefore, you might be thinking about alternatives – preferably free of charge.
Keep in mind, however, that hiring a patent attorney is often recommended for the only chances of success, especially for complex inventions. While there are some free paths you can take, none of them really work. That being said, here are some ways you can try to patent an idea for free.
File a Patent on Your Own
Filing a patent on your own, or “pro se” filing, can be a complex process. However, it is not impossible. Typically, patent applications must meet specific legal criteria to be considered, and without adequate legal knowledge, this cannot be achieved.
This is why the USPTO developed the Pro Se Assistance Program to help independent inventors with their application process. If you’re determined to file a patent on your own, here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process:
Step 1: Select the Right Patent
Regarding inventions and ideas, the USPTO offers two kinds of patents. You need to be able to differentiate between these patents to select the one that best suits your idea. They include:
- Utility Patent: Utility patents are mainly used to protect the operability and functional aspects of an invention, such as how it works or the specific methods it involves. To get a utility patent, an invention has to have a beneficial use as well as a practical use.
- Design Patent: Design patents are mainly used to protect the visual, non-functional, and aesthetic aspects of an invention. They offer no form of protection whatsoever for the functional aspect of a design or invention.
Step 2: Determine Patent Eligibility
The next thing to do is ensure your idea is eligible for patent protection. To qualify, it must be:
- Novel – new and not disclosed before
- Non-obvious – not a simple variation of existing ideas
- Useful – have a practical application.
Step 3: Conduct a Patent Search
Before investing time into the patent process, it’s essential to ensure your invention is novel and non-obvious and hasn’t already been patented. Use online patent databases, like the USPTO database, to perform a thorough patent search.
Step 4: Document Your Invention
It is important to keep detailed records of your invention, including descriptions, drawings, photographs, and relevant notes. These records will be needed to show that you originally conceived the idea. Make sure to include dates and other important information when detailing your invention.
In all that you do, you must remain extremely strict with the confidentiality of your idea. All essential details, both relevant and irrelevant data, should remain undisclosed as the exposure of these may result in your patents being compromised.
Step 5: Prepare Your Application
To file your application, visit the USPTO website and open an account.
For utility patents, the application should be drafted in the following order:
- Application transmittal form
- Fee transmittal form
- Application data sheet
- Executed oath or declaration
For design patents, the application should be drafted in the following order:
- Design application transmittal form
- Fee transmittal form
- Application data sheet
- Drawings or photographs
- The inventor’s oath or declaration
Step 6: Pay the Filing Fee
The USPTO charges fees for filing a patent application, and these fees must be paid. The fee amount typically depends on the type of patent and your entity status -individual, small entity, or large entity. Currently, the USPTO basic filing fee costs between $220 and $320. Check the USPTO fee schedule and include the correct fee with your application.
Step 7: File the Application
Carefully review your patent application for accuracy, clarity, and completeness. Ensure that all the necessary documents and information are attached. It is advisable to have someone with a fresh perspective go through it as well.
Once your application is thoroughly reviewed, you can submit your application to the USPTO online.
Step 8: Await Examination
After submission, the USPTO will examine your application. This process can take several months, and it’s common for patent examiners to request clarifications or revisions to your application.
If the patent examiner identifies issues with your application, they will send an Office Action detailing the problems. You will need to address these concerns on time and amend your application accordingly by requesting a reconsideration in writing. This can involve rewriting claims or providing additional information.
Step 9: Receive Your Patent
Once your application is in good order and the USPTO is satisfied, you will receive a Notice of Allowance. This indicates that you’re approved for a patent. You must pay an issuance fee and, sometimes, a publication fee. This fee finalizes the process, and upon payment, your patent will be issued.
The Patent Pro Bono Program
The Patent Pro Bono program was launched by the USPTO in 2011 to provide free legal assistance for patent filing to inventors who meet specific requirements. This program works by connecting qualified inventors with registered patent agents or attorneys. These professionals are usually volunteers and, therefore, do not need to be paid.
However, the inventor will still have to pay all the required USPTO fees during the process. This program is currently available in all the states of the U.S., and it is made up of multiple independently run programs that cover different states and regions.
While the regional programs each have their specific admission requirements, here are some of the generally applicable requirements for the program:
- The gross household income of applicants should be less than three times the federal poverty level guidelines (note that some regional programs may have certain exceptions or criteria to this requirement)
- Applicants must demonstrate an understanding of the U.S. patent system. This can either be demonstrated through. This can be demonstrated by:
- Having a provisional patent application on file with the USPTO or
- Completing the basic patent certificate training course offered by the USPTO
- Applicants must be able to describe the features of their invention and how it works
The issue here is that since it’s pro bono, lawyers are usually unable to devote the time necessary or are not experienced enough, and as such, this option does not always work.
Law School Clinic Certification Program
The Law School Clinic Certification Program comprises independent law school clinics that offer legal services to qualified investors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses free of charge. These services are provided by law students under the guidance of professional law school supervising attorneys. The program currently has more than 60 law schools participating.
The USPTO allows law students to practice directly, thus providing them with the necessary real-life experience of filing patent applications. Each of the participating law schools has its criteria for qualification, as well as mode of operation. Of the free ways to patent an idea for free, this is perhaps the easiest method.
However, it does not work for the following reasons:
- The students involved are usually inexperienced and cannot adequately handle a proper filing.
- The filing process may be time-consuming and usually requires the full attention of the attorney, which the students, in this case, would likely not be able to provide.
How Much Does It Cost to Patent an Idea?
Patenting an idea typically requires different fees, including filing, attorney, and maintenance fees. This cost can vary widely depending on the complexity of the kind of patent you’re looking to file. A rough estimate for a utility patent can range from as low as $10,000 to as high as $20,000.
What Are the Requirements for Getting a Patent?
To obtain a patent, your invention or idea must be novel, which means it must not have been publicly disclosed or patented before your application’s filing date. It should also be non-obvious to someone skilled in the relevant field. Also, your invention should have a clear and detailed description and must be useful or have a practical application.
Can I Use a Provisional Patent Application for Free?
No, you cannot file a provisional patent application entirely for free. While you may be able to file a provisional patent application with free or zero legal help, you will still be required to pay filing fees to the USPTO. This fee can cost anywhere between $220 and $320, depending on the kind of patent.
While it is possible to obtain a patent for free or with minimal financial investment, this process may be challenging and has no chance of success. If your idea holds substantial commercial potential, it’s generally advisable to consult an experienced patent attorney who can help you navigate the complexities of patent application for your unique idea.